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Chad Kelly’s season-ending injury means even more what-ifs and tough choices for Ole Miss

The star senior QB’s knee injury adds to a frustrating 2016 for the Rebels, and the reaction could have impact for years.

NCAA Football: Georgia Southern at Mississippi Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Some seasons remain unfinished.

You spend nine months trying to figure out what a lineup might be capable of, but you never see that lineup because of Injury A, Suspension B, and Injury C. Instead, the entire season becomes a what-if or coulda-been.

Ole Miss lost No. 2 running back Jordan Wilkins to a self-inflicted eligibility issue and junior safety C.J. Moore to a pectoral injury before the season began. In the Week 1 loss to Florida State, the Rebels lost star corner Ken Webster and running back Eric Swinney to knee injuries. The following Saturday, they lost star freshman receiver D.K. Metcalf to a foot injury.

During Saturday's 37-27 win over Georgia Southern, leading tackler DeMarquis Gates suffered a knee injury that left him questionable for this Saturday against Texas A&M. Offensive linemen Robert Conyers and Sean Rawlings and defensive end John Youngblood are questionable or doubtful.

And after completing 16 of 23 passes to move to an SEC-leading 2,758 passing yards for the season, quarterback Chad Kelly tore his ACL. The swaggering senior’s career ends three to four games earlier than it was supposed to.

In my 2016 Ole Miss preview, I declared the Rebels were "never, ever boring."

Because of last season's injuries and suspensions, they got a lot of players experience and are perhaps better suited to handle the loss of stars like Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell, and Robert Nkemdiche than they would have otherwise been.

They could get hit with the NCAA's sanctions hammer at any moment between tomorrow and about 2019, but before they inevitably deal with scholarship reductions, Freeze and company have built a roster with both experience and thrilling young talent in every unit.

They might fall drastically short of expectations. They might win the SEC. They might be banned from the postseason by November. They are endlessly fascinating.

That has remained the case.

As my Podcast Ain't Played Nobody co-host Steven Godfrey put it, Ole Miss has been like a firecracker this fall, both in explosiveness and staying power.

  • The Rebels went up 28-6 on Florida State in the season opener, then allowed a 39-6 run, losing by 11.
  • They gave Alabama by far its biggest scare, bolting to a 24-3 lead, then watched as the Tide unleashed three return scores in a 45-6 run and fell just short, 48-43.
  • After destroying Georgia and Memphis by a combined 93-42, they reversed the script a bit, falling behind Arkansas, 17-6, then charging back with a 24-10 run, only to lose in the last minute.
  • They took a 10-0 lead against LSU in the first 10 minutes, then got posterized by Leonard Fournette. It was 21-21 at halftime, but Fournette rushed 16 times for 284 yards, and LSU scored all 17 second-half points.
  • The Rebels played a beautiful back-and-forth game against a peaking Auburn. There were nine lead changes, and Ole Miss took a 29-27 advantage into the fourth quarter, but guess who scored all 13 fourth-quarter points?

Ole Miss is 4-5 but has arguably still played at a top-25 level. They are 16th in S&P+, which seems crazy until you remember that teams aren’t punished for losing, but rather for playing poorly. The Rebels have traded blows quite well with the teams ranked second, seventh, eighth, and 12th. Against teams ranked beneath them, they’re 4-1 with an average score of 40-23 and a loss to only bipolar Arkansas.

This combination of quality, losses, and injuries has created a uniquely regretful cocktail. But since this is never-boring Ole Miss, it can’t be as simple as “Well, we’ll get ’em next year.”

There might not be a next year, at least as far as bowls are concerned.

Hugh Freeze's Rebels were long under investigation by NCAA officials for alleged violations that included impermissible benefits and booster inducements.

The school self-imposed some sanctions in May, including recruiting limitations and reduced grants-in-aid. But it is quite conceivable that the NCAA will add to that. The NCAA was reportedly interviewing former Ole Miss recruits over the summer.

At 4-5, Ole Miss needs to win two of its final three games -- at Texas A&M, at Vanderbilt, Mississippi State -- to reach bowl eligibility this year.

S&P+ says there's an 80 percent chance of pulling that out, but it doesn't take injuries into account.

S&P+ sees the game against A&M as a relative tossup and favors the Rebels by two touchdowns against Vandy and MSU, but are the odds anywhere near that good if Jason Pellerin is behind center? The 6'4, 230-pound redshirt freshman has completed five of 13 passes with three picks this year, though a couple of miscues weren’t really his fault.

Ole Miss isn’t gonna burn a young QB’s redshirt, right?

Typically, trying to pull out a 6-6 record to go to something like the Birmingham Bowl is preferable — you get extra practices, which coaches value for the development of young players — but not vital.

However, the thought of missing a bowl early in the 2016 recruiting class’ cycle might frighten Freeze a bit.

Ole Miss’ 2016 haul ranked fifth in the country per the 247Sports Composite, better than the celebrated 2013 class that featured Nkemdiche, Treadwell, and Tunsil. Among the stars of this class, offensive tackle Greg Little just made his first start, defensive lineman Benito Jones has 3.5 tackles for loss, receiver A.J. Brown has caught 19 passes for 278 yards, and corner Jaylon Jones has three pass breakups.

Freeze could decide that those extra bowl practices might be worth a panic move: tearing the redshirt off of quarterback Shea Patterson.

Patterson was the No. 4 recruit in the 2016 class according to 247 and the No. 1 overall quarterback. The product of Shreveport and the IMG Academy was tied for second on the depth chart heading into the season, and with Kelly poised for a big year, Freeze elected to attempt a redshirt for his blue-chipper.

Before he knew the extent of Kelly’s injury, Freeze said that he would lean on Pellerin if Kelly couldn’t play. But sources told Rebel Grove that Patterson was working with the No. 1s on Sunday.

I am generally of the opinion that tearing redshirts off in the last half of a season is counterproductive if it can at all be prevented. Trading the 2020 season for three games and a potential minor bowl in 2016 doesn’t seem worth it. Unless Patterson is so good that you don’t expect him to be around after three years no matter what, Freeze should probably resist the urge.

But if Patterson is that good, and if Freeze really is concerned about missing a bowl for two straight years, then the odds of the blue-chipper playing in College Station are probably pretty good.

College football coaches have become hilariously secretive, so it wouldn’t be surprising if we learned little about Freeze’s QB choice before the A&M game kicks off.

But regardless of how the final act plays out, this will be a season of what-ifs.

After four straight years of improvement — Freeze inherited a 2-10 squad and won seven games, then eight, then nine, then 10 — 2016 has served as a reset. Injuries and late-game fades prevented something special.

Now we’ll see what the Rebs can salvage before heading into what is sure to be a less-than-boring offseason.